Alfredo Sanchez often infuses local flavors into his tequila cocktails at the Four Seasons Punta Mita, Mexico. // © 2014 Megan Brickwood
Feature image (above): Around 200 varieties of tequilas and mescal are available at Four Seasons Punta Mita. // © 2014 Four Seasons Punta Mita
For many people, tequila evokes memories of wild college parties and the effort to remember whether the order is lick-lime-shot, or lick-shot-lime when they’ve had one too many shots already. And of course, there’s those colorful, frozen margaritas enjoyed by the pool.
But there is so much more to tequila. I recently had the privilege to study this infamous spirit under the tutelage of Alfredo Sanchez, bars manager and tequila master at the Four Seasons Punta Mita, Mexico. His mission is simple: to change the predominant perception of tequila as “the party drink.”
“I want people to conceive of tequila and mezcal in a different way,” Sanchez said. “Both are ancient spirits that require a lot of years and hard work to be produced. Tequila is a very festive drink, very common when you are celebrating something and you want to keep the party going, but that’s not the only way to enjoy it. There's a whole world behind it and we are trying to show this to everyone.”
I got an insider’s glimpse of that world during my stay. Turns out, there are many, many ways to drink this Mexican spirit, and they’re a good deal of fun — not to mention incredibly tasty.
Sipped Not Gulped
Most people do not think of tequila as a liquor for sipping, but it can be enjoyed this way, making for an entirely different experience. To fullly experience the drink, Sanchez suggests that you take a sip, work it around in your mouth a bit, “chew” it and swallow. Then, breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. That way, you will taste and smell all the nuanced flavors of the tequila.
An Introduction to Mezcal
One way to expand your Mexican spirit horizons is to try tequila’s hip cousin, mezcal. Tequila and mezcal are both made from agave, but they are processed differently, leaving mezcal with a distinctive smoky flavor. If you’re looking to establish hipster cred on a Mexican vacation, mezcal is the thing to drink.
For my introduction to this distinctive spirit, Alfredo chose Mezcal Marca Negra (made with espadin agave) and paired it with different fruits, including orange, pineapple and pineapple dipped in chili powder.
The process here was to sip the mezcal and then take a bite of the fruit — it’s amazing how the fruits complement and change the flavor of the spirit. If it turns out that mezcal is not to your liking, the same combinations work with tequila as well.
“Pairing pineapple or orange and chili with mezcal or tequila is not something that we invented — it’s the traditional way to drink these spirits in Mexico,” Sanchez said. “There are a lot of people who say that Mexicans put chili and lime with everything, and I think this is a good example. The sweetness and acidic flavor that you find in these fruits make a very interesting blend in your mouth with the very particular taste of mezcal or tequila. When you add the spiciness of the chili powder, it creates another element of surprise and complexity.”
The second phase of my education involved pairing mezcal and tequila with ice cream. I got to pick which of the resort’s 200 tequilas I wanted to try, and then Alfredo and his team picked out the perfect ice creams to match.
Mezcal El Jolgorio de Pechuga: This mezcal is flavored with "Creole turkey rooster” breast. We paired it with hibiscus ice cream, which brought out the sweetness of the turkey flavor.
Tequila Don Fulano Anejo, aged 3 years: This extra-aged tequila has vanilla and chocolate flavors, so it pairs very well with tobacco, or cacao ice cream for non-smokers.
Tequila Clase Azul Reposado: We paired this tequila — aged in used American oak barrels for eight months — with guanabana/soursap ice cream. This tequila has a spiciness to it, and the guanabana ice cream cools it down after you take a sip and adds a sweet twist.
Once you’ve completed your studies in tequila/mezcal tasting, you are ready to apply your knowledge to the advanced course: cocktails.
Four Seasons’ signature cocktails are created by Sanchez and his team. Drawing on influences from different regions of Mexico, these cocktails combine unexpected ingredients to create a truly unique and delicious flavor for each drink.
“I am from Mexico City, a big city where people from all over Mexico interact and share their own local products,” Sanchez said. “This exchange with different regions of the country allowed me to taste a lot of different things, so when I’m about to prepare a cocktail, I always think about those experiences and try to represent in the cocktail what I see or feel from that region of Mexico.”
The effect is not lost on visitors. After sampling an assortment of these special Four Seasons Punta Mita signature cocktails, I discovered a new and profound appreciation of tequila and mezcal. So the next time you’re considering a straight shot of tequila or a strawberry margarita, think again. Shake things up with some new combinations.